The big lie of leadership development

Many leaders struggle between staying true to themselves and meeting other people's expectations. This is where the big lie comes in.

Steffan Surdek
February 28, 2022
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It is a hard time right now to be a leader in an organization. Whether you are an executive, a director or even a line manager, the struggle is real!

You may be feeling overwhelmed because you have a lot of things to take care of for your team. You may be working in an operational environment and feeling as if your world is always on fire.

Aside from everything you have to do right now, you keep hearing from HR folks that you need to change how you lead. You need to do some personal development work. This is where the big lie around leadership development in many organizations usually happens.

In this article, we will talk about what this big lie is and give you some ideas about what to do about it.

Many leaders face this internal struggle

Before we get into the big lie, let's talk about some of the expectations organizations have for leaders. One of the most common things I hear is that as a leader, you need to be a coach for your team.

This often means asking more questions instead of giving answers upfront. You need to help your employees find their own solutions and make their own decisions without butting in. As a leader, you may actually get confused at times. When do I step in? When do I hold back?

Many leaders I speak to have a similar struggle. Should you give a solution that was your default behaviour in the past or should you hold back? Should the team decide anything and everything, when it is you as their leader who remains accountable in the end? Should you delegate something to the team when you believe your team will not do it your way? What happens to your own job if you teach your team to self-organize without you?

And then there is the struggle of being what your own leaders expect you to be. What if you do not ask the right questions when you are coaching team members? What will your team think of you if you ask them for solutions? Will you seem weak or incompetent?

These struggles are real and this is how those who perpetuate the big lie regularly make leaders feel. You feel as if you are not good enough or not trying hard enough.

What exactly is the big lie?

The big lie of leadership development is happening right now in many organizations.

Have you ever been given a tool by a member of the HR department or internal coach to help your leadership? As they are teaching you this new tool, how do you feel? Do you know it won’t make you a better leader? Do you believe it won’t help you grow? Do you believe it may even get in the way of your team’s ability to thrive? Do you feel as if they are just teaching you the same recipe they teach everyone else? Let me guess, despite all that, even though you try to adapt, it still does not feel quite right.

Here is the underlying lie: Your success as a leader depends on the tools we give you rather than on developing your way of being in your leadership role.

The assumption HR people and internal coaches make is that the tools will bring structure which in turn will lead to a mindset change. There is some truth to this, but that work alone is not deep enough.

Often what happens is leaders end up using these various tools with their existing mindset, so it does not always have the desired result. The person doing the coaching observes the leader and offers them feedback after the fact.

The issue here is that when rational people coach rational people, they often forget about the emotional aspect. This is an ineffective way to help leaders as it does not develop them as a whole. This could start with asking simple questions: How did it feel when you did that? What felt normal, what was uncomfortable? How does this uncomfortable piece show up for you?

The second part of the big lie

This leads us to the second part of the big lie, and here, it gets a bit worse.

Here is the second part of the lie: Over the years, what I found is that many coaches lack the skills and the depth to support their clients. Often, they are not embodying their own teachings.

The level of conversation and perspectives they offer does not push leaders forward. When it comes to leadership development there is a link between the quality of the coaching and the results.

In some cases, the challenge is that the coach comes from the same culture as the people they are coaching. They have been in the company for a long time and may not have experienced or integrated what they are teaching others. It can be difficult to teach something you have never experienced yourself, as you do not know the pitfalls.

In other cases, the coaches may not be living and breathing what they are telling you to do. Imagine for a moment a coach telling you that you need to leave some silence in group discussions. When they lead meetings, do they leave these silences for people to jump in? Do they understand the discomfort you are feeling when you try to leave those awkward silences and what it creates for you?

Now let me be clear on a few things here. Everybody is doing their best and everyone has good intentions. Every organization is different and some have more skilled coaching teams than others. Many of the coaches that I know want the best for their clients and they do their best... but this is not always enough.

How can you overcome the big lie?

At this point, you may be wondering what to do if you are experiencing the big lie where you work. The first thing is to take a closer look at what you want and what you need for your personal development.

As a leader, you focus on growing your people but who helps you grow? This is the role of a good coach. You should look for a coach who will offer you some of what you may be lacking with your management team.

For example, a coach can challenge your ideas and push you out of your comfort zone. They can help you think through your day-to-day issues and offer new perspectives. A coach should offer you actionable advice and not just talk about different theories and models. The most important thing is you need a coach that can listen to you and meet you where you are.


Although it may seem to help, the big lie is currently slowing down your personal development. It can give you the false sense of comfort. You feel that using tools will magically transform your mindset but the real work goes much deeper. The big lie may also push you away from coaching because you do not see the value in it.

The other problem is the big lie is taking away your voice at times. You do not feel comfortable stepping into your leadership in moments when your team may need it the most. You may also fear that you are doing things wrong.

The worst part about the big lie is that it gets in the way of you achieving your goals and living your dreams. You are not able to make lasting change when you are constantly being asked to stick within a model or use tools that do not work for you.

To step away from the big lie and step into your leadership in a powerful way, start by changing your perspective around leadership development. Finding the right coach for you is one of the keys to accelerating your development. It will allow you to challenge your fears and work towards being the leader that you always wanted to be!

Do you feel the big lie show up in your daily life? What could be different if you took a step further in your personal development?